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The Truth

What really happened in the murder trial of Ray Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting

This story originally appeared in our September 2000 issue.

"When was the last time a high-profile case in Atlanta ended in acquittal?" Bruce Harvey asks. "For a criminal defense lawyer, it doesn't get any better. It ain't never gonna be no sweeter than this."

The colorful, ponytailed defense lawyer smiles broadly, sitting behind his paper-strewn desk in a loft near the Tabernacle club downtown. Behind him, the wall is dominated by a framed photo and signature of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. Harvey's Harley-Davidson motorcycle is parked in the lobby downstairs. "Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty," he almost whispers. "You know, this was the right verdict. In that way, justice and the system was vindicated. When it works the way it's supposed to work, our justice system is a glorious thing. The trial wasn't the problem, the problem was that this case ever made it to trial. That was the disgrace."

The Ray Lewis Murder Trial, beyond attracting more national attention than any courthouse drama to unfold here in more than 20 years, became a morality play for modern-day Atlanta. It had the intrigue of a well-crafted whodunit. The glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl. An NFL star accused of murder. The trappings of Buckhead. A setting outside a popular bar in which professional athletes partied in a VIP room. It had the street hustle of hip-hop. Young black men wearing mink coats and drinking $200 bottles of champagne with luscious gold-diggers hanging on each arm. It was the kind of trial that makes or breaks legal careers, that seals reputations. And it attracted the creme de la creme of Atlanta's criminal defense lawyers.

"This was a defense lawyer's dream," says Harvey. "You had a high-profile, nationally significant case and an innocent client."

The result was a stunning and humiliating defeat for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack went as far as to compare Howard's performance to the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. "If they ever write a book listing the most inept prosecutions ever," Cossack wrote in his online column, "this one will be highlighted as the standard by which all others are to be measured."

In a series of interviews, both the defense team and Howard spoke candidly to Atlanta Magazine about the trial. Howard strenuously defended his handling of the case and his decision to enter the courtroom to personally prosecute after a nearly four-year hiatus from trial work. He described witnesses sabotaging the prosecution with organized silence. He answered criticism that he rushed the case to trial, maintaining that the case demanded aggressive prosecution.

Defense lawyers revealed how they shredded the prosecution case. They described political pressure from city officials that led to hastily drawn indictments. Some of the defense lawyers accused Howard of approaching ethical boundaries, even lying to them. (Howard denies all such allegations.) All the lawyers spoke openly of their behind-the-scenes disagreements, detailing awkward moments in coordinating a shared defense strategy. They told the inside story of Lewis' dramatic 11th-hour plea agreement that gave the All-Pro Baltimore Ravens linebacker what he'd wanted all along: probation for a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. And they explained how they won the outright acquittals of co-defendants Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley on all charges.

Above all, they talked about the truths that were never revealed in the courtroom. They talked about what really happened that night when two men died in the middle of the street in the heart of Buckhead.

Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting were indicted on Feb. 11, just 11 days after the stabbing deaths of two Akron, Ohio, natives—Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24—in the middle of East Paces Ferry Road in the heart of Buckhead. At the press conference announcing the indictments, Mayor Bill Campbell's statement was bold and definitive. "We will not allow wealth or fame or celebrity to pervert justice," he proclaimed, standing in front of a crowded room of local and national media. He described the perpetrators as "literally dripping with blood" and cloaking their actions with silence.

Howard said the deaths in the wee hours of Jan. 31 following the Super Bowl were "brutal and deliberate murders." The charges against the star football player generated national headlines. Court TV would televise the trial from Atlanta. CNN and ESPN and Fox Sports planned gavel-to-gavel coverage.

The sort of flare-ups that would ruffle the defense efforts throughout the case were immediately evident. Sweeting's counsel, Steve Sadow, and Oakley's, Bruce Harvey, believed the defense needed to present a unified front to win. And Sadow thought Lewis' lawyers—Ed Garland and Don Samuel—were going overboard in laying the blame on Oakley and Sweeting. "Look, there's no need to attack us," he told Garland. "We won't be attacking you. They have no case on Ray. Nothing Joseph Sweeting will ever say will hurt Ray Lewis. So back off us."

Garland and Samuel accepted the premise of a unified defense up to a point. If saving their client meant shifting blame to the other co-defendants, so be it. They wanted to put as much distance as possible between their client and his co-defendants: Lewis was a star football player; Sweeting and Oakley were street thugs. "The co-defendants complicated everything for us," says Samuel. "We wanted Steve to go with self-defense for Sweeting. We thought that Ray would likely testify and we knew he'd put the knife in Sweeting's hands. That was a constant struggle. We wanted both those guys to go with self-defense. And Steve was originally thinking self-defense, then he moved away from it."

The position of Sadow and Harvey was firm: They weren't going to admit anything the prosecution couldn't prove. And at that point, the prosecution hadn't revealed evidence that either man ever held a knife that night. "I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the prosecution to produce evidence," says Sadow. "I didn't file many motions before the trial because I didn't want to be on paper taking a position on the knife."

With the trial only a week away, secret negotiations began between the Lewis defense team and prosecutors. Two of the lawyers met with Paul Howard to determine if the district attorney was agreeable to a plea bargain. He offered to let Lewis off with a three-year prison sentence if Lewis pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and then testified against his two co-defendants, Sweeting and Oakley. According to Samuel, Howard also intimated that he had reached a deal with Oakley, and needed an answer fast. Howard denies this. The apparent revelation that a codefendant had flipped sent the Lewis defense team into near panic. They called Sadow. He scoffed and said he would phone Harvey, who was representing Oakley with a lawyer named David Wolfe. "If Bruce was going to cut a deal, he would let us know," Sadow told them. "Bruce would never outright lie to me; if something is up and he can't talk about it, then he'll tell me that."

Harvey's response was simple: "Complete bullshit. No way. They've offered us 20 years for voluntary manslaughter. We're not taking that."

Despite Sadow's assurances, the Lewis team couldn't be certain. Harvey's first loyalty was to his client. But would a prosecutor so blatantly mislead them? Either there was a deal or there wasn't. Someone wasn't telling the truth. The next day, following a hearing at the courthouse, they scouted for more information. Samuel, Garland and fellow Lewis defense team member Tony Axam stopped by the district attorney's office. They again discussed the three-year prison deal. And this time, Howard suggested that Lewis would be paroled after six months, assuring them he possessed the political clout to make it happen.

"That's bullshit, Paul," Samuel shot back. "A first-year lawyer might fall for that, but don't try that stuff on me. You don't get paroled in this state." Lewis' position was simple: He wasn't involved in the fight, and he would plead only to a misdemeanor crime with no jail time.

The defense lawyers say the district attorney reminded them of his deal with Oakley. "In fact, Bruce Harvey and David Wolfe will be here at three o'clock to finalize it," he said. A few minutes later, Howard received a phone call. He listened for a moment, then put the phone down. "They're here," he said. "This is your last chance."

They again rejected the deal.

Howard suggested it would be awkward if the two defense teams ran into each other in the hallway of the DA's office when one defendant was about to turn against the other. Samuel says Howard asked them to hide in a room until the other lawyers were safely past. When they finally departed, Samuel and Axam raced to Samuel's Buckhead office. They were frantic. The landscape of the entire case had just changed. If Oakley had cut a deal, he would tell the prosecution exactly what they wanted to hear. Samuel and Axam marched inside, turned to go down the hall and then stopped dead in their tracks.

Bruce Harvey wasn't cutting a deal with the district attorney; he was sitting in their conference room reviewing reams of paperwork turned over by the prosecution. There was no plea agreement with Oakley. Wolfe was at the DA's office. And he was sounding out the prosecutors about the odds of a favorable plea. But the visit was routine; no one expected a favorable plea.

It was a sobering moment for the defense team. Prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers regularly engage in pretrial maneuvering that includes enough feigning and posturing to be worthy of a poker game. But to the defense, this went way beyond that. "A certain amount of bluffing is acceptable because we are adversaries," says Samuel. "But this was not a whole lot different than saying, 'I found a witness who saw your client with a knife,' when there's really no witness. Imagine if someone had accepted a plea based on that representation. It was far too close to the line."

At the same time, it served as a beacon to the defense team: If the district attorney was this desperate, then he obviously had no confidence in his case. With the trial only a week away, Paul Howard had just made it known he was at the helm of a sinking ship.

From the outset, prosecutors faced a tall challenge: Bringing order to what was essentially a street fight between a group of people from Ohio calling themselves the "OH-I0" and a group of people who accompanied Lewis. Everyone agrees that the two groups had an altercation outside the Cobalt Lounge on East Paces Ferry Road. Everyone agrees that Oakley was angry, screaming expletives at the Ohio group. And that Lewis grabbed him by the waist, pulled him away, took him down the street and put him into the limo.

Moments later, the Ohio guys walked by the limo. Lewis and Sweeting were about to get inside the limo when Richard Lollar yelled back at them, "Fuck the niggaz! This is OH-I0!" Then the smallest member of the OH-I0 group—Jacinth Baker, who stood just 5 feet, 3 inches tall—stopped. He turned around and returned to where the hulking Lewis was standing. "Who the fuck do you think you guys are?" he demanded.

Oakley sprang from the car and inserted himself between Baker and Lewis. Baker slugged Oakley with a Moet champagne bottle. Then two guys from Ohio jumped Sweeting. In the words of Lewis, that's when all hell broke loose. About 90 seconds later, Baker was lying in a pool of his own blood, dying from a stab wound that pierced his heart. Lollar was nearby, dead from a stab wound to his heart.

The entire case revolved around what happened in those 90 seconds. "It was very difficult for the state to present a coherent and cohesive picture of what happened," says Harvey. "It was 4 a.m. Everyone was drinking and partying. The incident took place in 90 seconds of furious action. I don't think you ever get certainty out of chaos, with the exception of physics. In any chaotic and violent event, peoples' perceptions are going to be dramatically different. The OH-I0 gang gave one version of events. The Ray Lewis group, all of them gave versions that were different. And the third parties who saw it were completely_divergent."

The spacious Courtroom 1A was packed to standing room only when testimony began on May 23. The rows behind the prosecution were filled with media and relatives of the victims; supporters of the defendants sat behind their table on the left side of the courtroom. The balance of the seats were often filled with retirees, people on vacation, a few stray homeless people and lawyers occasionally darting in and out of the courtroom to catch a glimpse of the defense team at work. Lewis, sitting between Samuel and Garland, appeared to be taking copious notes on a yellow legal pad; he was actually doodling and practicing his autograph. The first courtroom bombshell was the arrival on the opening day of the trial of the district attorney to prosecute the case. Howard says he decided to handle it personally because the evidence was complicated and a celebrity defendant raised the stakes. "If we lost, the blame would be laid on my assistants and I didn't think that was fair," he says. "I decided I would take the heat. Plus, they had so many lawyers; it was nine against two when I joined." (Of course, Howard also would have received all the accolades had he won, and this was the kind of high-profile case that could ensure his political career for years.)

It was, the defense lawyers agree, a decision that quickly backfired. "Paul really is a top-notch trial lawyer," says Sadow. "But he was rusty. He hadn't tried a case in four years."

"I don't know why he felt compelled to do it," says Samuel. "You don't go trying cases when you're the district attorney. He's the policy maker; he's got people who are paid to be the trial lawyers. It takes time to get comfortable in court. If I haven't been in court for six months, I'll go try a DUI case just to warm up, to get in front of a jury again."

Howard opened with a fundamental mistake: He exaggerated his evidence and made promises to the jury that he couldn't keep. He promised jurors that a trail of blood would lead directly to Lewis and mark him as a murderer. He promised to prove Lewis kicked and punched the victims. He promised to prove that Oakley fought with Baker and that Sweeting fought with Lollar, and that they stabbed them to death. He promised that Lewis' limo driver heard Oakley and Sweeting confess to the stabbings. By the end of the trial, all these promises would prove empty.

The prosecution stumbled off the starting blocks. They presented two store employees who saw Sweeting purchase three knives at an autograph session Lewis held before the Super Bowl at the Sports Authority at GwinnettPlace Mall. Not content to leave it at that, they also called a friend of Lewis who was in the store and witnessed the purchase. There was just one problem: The friend was the object of what he considered a racially disparaging comment uttered by Atlanta Police Homicide Lieutenant Mike Smith. The man had abruptly ended his interview with Smith and stormed out of the police department. The lead detective in the investigation, Ken Allen, was sufficiently offended to not only follow the witness outside and apologize, but to include the incident in his investigative report. The snafu was obvious: In front of a jury that included 10 blacks, Howard had just introduced evidence that the supervisor of the investigation was a racist.

Howard then put an eyewitness on the stand who couldn't even place the defendants at the scene. From that point, things only got worse: The prosecution's next two witnesses, Chris Shinholster and Jeff Gwen, put a knife in someone else's hands. The two members of the OH-10 group each described an altercation with Oakley outside the Cobalt Lounge. Gwen said he was upset that night because his ride had left him behind. He was cursing loudly, calling his friends "ho-ass niggaz," when Oakley walked up and demanded to know whom Gwen was calling a "ho-ass nigga." Oakley seemed drunk and belligerent, and Lewis grabbed him from behind and led him away. A second man then walked up and said, "Everything's cool, my friend's just drunk." Gwen looked at the man's hands. "If everything's cool," he replied, "Why do you have a knife?"

Both Gwen and Shinholster agreed the man with the knife was not one of the defendants. Gwen said the man was clad in black leather pants and a jacket and a derby. That matched a description of limo passenger Kwame King, Lewis' lifelong friend and a Florida A&M University doctoral student. Shinholster said the man with the knife was clad in a black mink coat. That description matched someone else with the Lewis party, Carlos Stafford, a law student from Houston.

Later, when the melee broke out, Gwen said he saw Lewis "tussling" with one of the victims, Lollar. He saw Oakley punching the other victim, Baker, in the stomach. Then the man with the knife began chasing Gwen, who turned and ran for his life.

The defense was lying in wait on cross-examination. They knew that Gwen had originally given authorities a written statement saying he saw Lewis punch Lollar. They also knew that he had told prosecutors a few weeks later that he was mistaken and actually saw only Lewis wrestling with Lollar. The law requires prosecutors to turn over all evidence to the defense, and prosecutors had never informed them about the change in Gwen's statement. The defense discovered the contradiction only when they interviewed him themselves in Ohio.

Samuel's first instinct had been to file a pre-trial motion protesting the omission; Sadow had convinced him to save it for maximum dramatic impact at the trial. But by the time Gwen reached the stand, the Lewis team had cooled on the idea: They didn't want the jury to know that Gwen had ever said that Lewis punched someone, and Garland didn't raise the point during his cross-examination. Sadow was flabbergasted by the strategy. "I told them I was going to do it myself. I said, 'You guys just don't understand the importance it will have.'"

Sadow's cross-examination of Gwen was cutting. Step by step, he led Gwen through the chronology. How he'd returned to Atlanta on Feb. 28 and took prosecutors to the scene, and tried to reenact everything that had happened that night. How they had asked him to read a copy of his initial statement to police. How he'd pointed out a mistake to them. How Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker had instructed him to underline the mistaken passage.

Then came perhaps the most riveting moment of the trial.

Sadow was standing at the podium between the prosecution and defense tables, barely two feet away from Paul Howard. He made a dramatic turn, first glancing at the jury and then looking down at the prosecutors. "May we please have a copy of that underlined statement?" His voice was forceful and angry. Silence hung in the courtroom while prosecutors sat stunned, crestfallen. Finally, Rucker rose to make a meek defense: He acknowledged that Gwen told him there was a mistake in his statement but remembered nothing underlined. It didn't work. The point was hammered home: One of the few witnesses who claimed to have seen Lewis throw a punch had recanted that testimony, and the prosecution never told the defense.

Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner was obviously angered by the omission. It wasn't the first time the prosecution had failed to turn over evidence to the defense. She scheduled a meeting with the lawyers in her chambers the following morning. When they gathered at 8:45 a.m., it was clearly Bonner's intention to scold Rucker and Howard's intention to take the hit for his assistant. According to Sadow, almost as soon as the judge began speaking, Howard interrupted her. Bonner cut him off and said she would give him the opportunity to say something when she finished. As she began to speak, Howard again interrupted the judge; she again told him he could speak when she was finished. When Howard interrupted her a third time, Bonner called an abrupt end to the session and ordered everyone out of her chambers.

Howard says he did the right thing. "I have to protect my folks," he says. "I decided I would deflect it on me. I took that one." But Bonner was noticeably short-tempered with the prosecution for the balance of the trial. "I remember thinking, does Paul have cotton in his ears?" says Sadow. "He had thoroughly pissed off the judge. He didn't get a discretionary break from her for the rest of the trial."

No prosecution witness was more anxiously anticipated than Duane Fassett, Lewis's limo driver. It was Fassett's account to police of Lewis punching someone during the melee that led to the football star's arrest. The driver implicated Sweeting and Oakley, too, saying he saw them fight and then heard them confess to the stabbings once they got back in the limo. There was just one catch: Fassett's story seemed to change each time he told it.

In fact, Fassett's lawyer, David Irwin, called Garland before the trial to inform him that his client was "not going to be saying those things they have him saying." Fassett was prepared to swear that his statements to police were coerced through threats and intimidation.

When Fassett took the witness stand on May 25, he looked sad and sallow and utterly frightened. No one else had seen Lewis throw a punch. No one else could link Sweeting and Oakley to the stabbings. Fassett was carrying the weight of the entire prosecution on his frail shoulders. And the prosecution was totally unaware that he was about to betray them. "I'd actually taken a trip to Baltimore to interview him'," says Howard. "And he got up to demonstrate on me, using me as the model, how Ray Lewis punched them. His wife was there, his lawyer. What happened [at the trial] was very much a surprise to us."

Fassett testified to the following: He saw Lewis raise his fist and yell, "Knock this shit off!" Fassett then turned away at that very moment to look at Oakley fighting with someone. He also saw Sweeting involved in two different fights. Beyond that, he saw absolutely nothing. And he heard absolutely nothing. Certainly no confession from Oakley and Sweeting.

Howard now found himself boxed into a corner. On one hand, he desperately needed to get Fassett's testimony on the record; without it, he didn't have much of a case left. On the other hand, he didn't dare confront Fassett on the witness stand with his previous statements to police; if he did that, the defense was prepared to suggest police coercion and destroy Fassett's credibility.

Howard decided to attempt a legal end-around, call the detective who had taken Fassett's statements and have him read them into evidence. Samuel blocked him by pointing out that Georgia law requires prosecutors to confront a witness with any inconsistent statements and give them the chance to explain.

Fassett was gone. Gwen was gone. Howard was left with just one witness who had seen Lewis strike the victims. And he was a professional con artist named Chester Anderson who was destroyed on the witness stand by a searing cross-examination from Garland. "Chester Anderson was a trial lawyer's dream witness," says Garland. "He provided important and incriminating testimony, and we showed he was a liar. I really believe that witness undermined the integrity of the prosecution's entire case. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the turning point, psychologically, for the jury. It came into focus that the prosecution had to rely on unreliable evidence."

Sadow agrees that it was a turning point, but for different reasons. "Chester Anderson was a calculated risk that went horribly wrong for the prosecution," he says. "At that point, there was no other evidence against Ray Lewis, so they had to introduce Anderson. The cross-examination was Ed Garland at his absolute best. But I believe Ed never stopped worrying about Chester Anderson, whether the jury might somehow believe him. Which is why we wound up with Ray Lewis taking a plea."

The call came on a Sunday night at 10:00, just as the trial was about to enter its third week. Sadow was at home, ready for bed. It was a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. Did Sadow know that Ray Lewis had reached an agreement with the prosecution? Lewis was going to plea to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice and testify against Sweeting and Oakley.

Sadow was stunned. What was the logic? Why now? With so little evidence, nearly everyone thought Judge Bonner was poised to dismiss all charges at the end of the prosecution's case on a directed verdict. All along, Sadow had known he could trust Harvey; he'd never known whether he could trust Garland. And now his fears were being confirmed.

He called Samuel and Garland to find out whether it was true. At first, Samuel hedged. They had agreed with the district attorney not to tell anyone; if word of the deal leaked and turned up in the newspapers, then the judge might refuse to accept it. "Steve, I'll remind you of what you said Bruce would say," Samuel finally responded. "I'll never lie to you. And I can't tell you what's going on." When Sadow responded that he already knew what was going on, Samuel and Garland confirmed the deal. But they didn't tip him as to what Lewis' testimony would be.

With the plea making national headlines overnight, the courtroom was jammed the next morning. Lewis appeared just after 9 a.m., clad in a tailored dark brown suit that showed off his V-shaped, boxer's torso, from the small waist to the immensely broad shoulders. As he waited for court to convene, Lewis nervously squeezed a tennis ball with his left hand and huddled with his lawyers.

The lawyers representing Oakley and Sweeting looked grim, even shell-shocked. This was their worst nightmare. Just two days earlier, it was all but certain their clients would be home by the weekend. Now, the entire case would ride on what Lewis had told prosecutors. They were prepared for the worst. Harvey vowed to tear up Lewis on the witness stand. "The state just spent two weeks trying to prove he's a liar," he told reporters after the plea. "He was a liar when he was a defendant, but now he's truthful because he's on their side? I don't think so."

The defense team was taken to a jury room to watch Lewis' videotaped statement to prosecutors. As the 30-minute tape played, they waited for bombshells. Then it slowly began to sink in: No bombshells were coming. Nothing Lewis said implicated Oakley, although he did damage Sweeting. According to Lewis, Sweeting approached him after the stabbings and said, "Man, they was trippin'. Every time they hit me, I hit them back." And with a closed knife inside his fist, he had demonstrated his punches. Otherwise, Lewis stuck to the defense team's version of events. John Bergendahl, Sadow's co-counsel, still wanted to go after Lewis. Sadow wasn't so sure. What if they embraced Lewis instead? Sadow did something he'd done throughout the trial: He scanned the message boards on the Internet seeking reaction to the turn of events. They offered him the perspective of ordinary people, the kind of people who were on the jury. Sentiment was still running strong that the prosecution hadn't proved its case.

"I decided if you attack him, then his memory is probably going to get a lot better," Sadow says. "I decided I was going to turn Ray Lewis into the best witness I could have. And infer that seeing the knife in Sweeting's fist was an add-on he'd made in order to please the prosecutors. "

This was Howard's last stand. At no other point in the trial did he act more like a prosecutor—indignant, probing, a warrior for the truth—than when Lewis took the witness stand. It was an impressive and, ultimately, empty performance. Despite three hours of questions and answers, Lewis gave him almost nothing. He said that two men from OH-I0 had jumped Sweeting. Meanwhile, Oakley and Carlos Stafford fought with Jacinth Baker. He saw Oakley get Baker on the ground, and then hit him in the chest from behind while Stafford kicked him. Through it all, Lewis never once placed the knives in the hands of either Oakley or Sweeting during the fight. He never saw them stab anyone. He never heard them confess. He implicated no one.

When the district attorney finished, Sadow walked up to the podium to begin cross-examination. He laid his legal pad down in front of him, then looked up at Lewis and smiled. "My, things change, don't they?" Sadow said.

"Yes, they do," responded Lewis. And then he did a remarkable thing. He looked up at Sadow and he winked.

The verdict came six days later. The jury had deliberated less than three hours. Not guilty on all counts. Sweeting and Oakley were free men. That night, Sadow and Harvey accompanied them in a limousine to celebrate at the Gold Club.

The defense lawyers contend the case made it to trial because city officials exerted tremendous pressure to make arrests, just as they did to finger a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the Olympic Games. Atlanta was again hosting an international sports event: the Super Bowl. The city's reputation stood to be soiled by yet another act of violence.

Garland has been unflinchingly vocal in placing much of the blame for an ill-advised prosecution on the mayor's office. "The mayor came to the press conference," says Garland. "That's not his function. He's not in the prosecution business. Political pressure created the sudden indictment. It was dramatic, it was for the six o'clock news. The question of 'Can we prove it?' got completely lost."

Both Campbell and Howard deny there was any pressure exerted. "I was surprised Ed Garland made those remarks," says Howard. "I don't know where that came from. The mayor called early in the investigation and he thought we should hold a press conference because we weren't commenting to that point. Other than that, I didn't ever talk to the mayor; he knows I wouldn't pay attention to him anyway. We followed normal procedures on this case."

But normal procedures weren't always followed. Lewis was arrested even though the lead detective did not want to charge him. And while suspects routinely languish in jail for months waiting for the district attorney to bring an indictment, Lewis and Sweeting and Oakley were indicted just 11 days after the deaths. At that point, prosecutors were relying almost solely on Fassett's statement; they had yet to identify, much less interview, the passengers in the limo.

The rush also produced a flawed indictment that would prove key to the acquittals. The original arrest warrant against Lewis was open-ended, alleging that he caused the deaths by stabbing, punching or kicking. That language was inexplicably narrowed to allege the deaths were caused only by "cutting and stabbing." That forced the prosecution into needing to literally put knives in the hands of each defendant to win a conviction.

The prosecution easily proved that Sweeting and Oakley—perhaps even Lewis—had punched or kicked the victims; it never came close to proving they wielded knives. Had Howard simply adopted the language of the arrest warrant for the indictment, he would have had more than enough evidence to convict. "That was a terrible blunder by the DA," says Samuel.

Defense lawyers cite another critical error by the prosecutors: They had taken a street brawl and tried to turn it into murder with malice and then refused to budge despite substantial evidence the theory was plain wrong. "Once they'd held that press conference and then opposed bond for Lewis, what were they gonna do?" asks Bruce Harvey. "They were locked into it at that point, absolutely locked into it."

Harvey believes that stance forced prosecutors to downplay and even try to hide evidence that indicated otherwise. "During the trial, they misled," he says. "They deliberately hid things. They deliberately didn't present information if it didn't fall into their view of things. It was abhorrent. I'll never trust them again, anything the Fulton County District Attorney's Office tells me. There were things in this case that were eye-openers."

It went far beyond withholding Jeff Gwen's change in testimony from the defense. In his final closing argument, Howard so blatantly mischaracterized what defense lawyers said in their opening arguments that Judge Bonner made him stand up afterward and correct his errors to the jury. When the prosecution failed to note, on its chart detailing evidence in the limo, an unidentified blood sample mixed with the blood of Oakley and Baker, Harvey attempted to correct it. Howard jumped up and accused Harvey of "defacing our exhibit" with the correction.

The prosecution missteps resulted in an unusual dynamic: Typically, the prosecution is viewed as the hunter of the truth and the defense endeavors to sufficiently muddy the waters to win an acquittal; this time, it was the defense lawyers who seemed to be searching for truth while the prosecution appeared willing to do almost anything to salvage a victory.

Howard admits to no missteps in his prosecution and says the wording of the indictment made little difference. The case, according to the DA, was stymied simply because witness after witness either changed their story or refused to testify. "There was a whole wall of orchestrated silence," he says. "Some of our witnesses got up on the stand and changed their testimony." From his perspective, the fact that no one was convicted "defies imagination." I

Lewis' fame presented an additional problem. "There's a tendency to give a celebrity the benefit of the doubt," he says. "People don't believe somebody who makes that much money would commit a crime like that. It also changes the scope of the legal representation. A case like this might normally be handled by the public defender's office. And I believe it makes a judge act differently. Losing a case doesn't mean you rushed to judgment. If you're holds not willing to try a tough case, I guess you'll never lose a case."

In mock trials organized by the defense, Lewis was actually convicted of aggravated assault. Of course, Ed Garland handled those prosecutions, and he took quite a different approach than Howard. "We were prepared to deal with a much more substantive case than was presented," he says. "There was an absence of a clear theme by the prosecutors. There was a failure to really articulate their theory. If they had developed the case against Lewis in the strongest way, they would have argued that he had to have known the knives were out there. They should have articulated that idea. Made it a group action. It was the pack that did it. It was the pack that attacked. It was the pack that killed. And who was the leader of the pack? Ray Lewis."

The evidence against the defendants was so underwhelming that both Sadow and Harvey are still mystified by Lewis' decision to accept the plea bargain. "We were winning," says Sadow. "Sweeting was going home. Everybody was going home. Everything we'd wanted to accomplish, we'd done."

Harvey learned of the Lewis deal as he exited a Bruce Springsteen concert at Philips Arena. "That's bullshit," Harvey responded. "There's no way. He's gonna walk on a directed verdict. There's no way they'd take the chickenshit route now." Harvey laughs as he recounts the moment. "Guess I was wrong," he says. "I really don't want to second-guess them. I can't say I would have done the same thing."

But would he? Harvey doesn't respond for several moments, considering the question. He is a warrior, a man with a cobra tattooed on his body. He can't betray his nature. Finally, he smiles and shakes his head. "No," he says. "Never."

Essentially, Lewis had 26 million reasons to take the deal. His goal was to clear his name and play professional football again and fulfill his $26 million contract. This was his only sure bet. "We were trying two cases: one in the courtroom and one in the court of public opinion," says Garland. "We did not want people saying a slick lawyer got him off. Nothing was guaranteed. There were more witnesses out there. If it goes to the jury, what happens if one juror holds out? All of a sudden, you have a new trial. Any competent lawyer who could get murder charges dismissed with a deal like that would be committing malfeasance if they didn't take it. This was an absolute no-brainer."

Every defense lawyer in the Ray Lewis Murder Trial professes to know the Truth. And, like the witnesses, each has a different truth to tell. Even Harvey and Wolfe, who represented the same client, relate divergent accounts of what really happened that night. But when viewed as individual parts of a puzzle rather than competing versions, the divergent pieces suddenly fit together into a coherent story.

It was well established at the trial that Jacinth Baker was selling marijuana at the Cobalt; six small bags of pot were found in the pocket of his pants. His buddy, Jeff Gwen, testified that he [Gwen] was smoking marijuana "blunts" inside the Cobalt that night. According to Harvey, Baker approached the Lewis group inside the club and tried to sell them a bag of dope. He was turned down but persisted, going to a second member of the group. Oakley approached him and said, "We already told you to get the fuck away from here. We don't want no dope." A few minutes later, outside, Baker accosted them a third time. That's what led to the confrontation between Baker, and Oakley and Kwame King.

The OH-I0 guys were trash-talking, according to Sadow and Wolfe. They dogged the women with the Lewis group. They made comments about Lewis's jewelry. And then Gwen called them "ho-ass niggaz." Oakley had had enough. "When words are exchanged and you have black men, they're not going to back down," Sadow says. "That's your manhood; you have to respond." Lewis finally pulled Oakley away. They walked down the street to the limo and, moments later, the second confrontation erupted. The irony was, Oakley and Sweeting were standing up for Lewis; they were trying to protect their famous friend.

The consensus from the defense lawyers is that Lewis did participate in the fight. "He made it sound like he was doing commentary from the press box when he was testifying," says Wolfe. "But he had to have been involved, pushing people off and trying to break it up." Samuel is the dissenting voice. He says it was difficult at first to believe that Lewis stood still while his friends were being attacked. "Now, I don't think Ray was such close friends with Sweeting and Oakley," says Samuel. "They didn't mean that much to him. So his attitude was, 'Fuck you, I'm not fighting.'"

And the stabbings? Stafford and King were ready-made scapegoats for the defense; more witnesses seemed to attach knives to them than to the actual defendants. "In essence, the jury connected with the evidence concerning Kwame King and Carlos Stafford," says Samuel. "Witnesses said these guys had knives and the jury wondered: Why aren't they on trial? How would the case have gone if there'd been five defendants at that table rather than three? Someone would have been convicted."

The crowning touch in the theory was the final eyewitness called to the stand, the only witness called by the defense, a professional bodyguard named Keven Brown. He stopped his car so close to the action just as the fight was breaking out that his gold Honda can be seen parked in nearly all the crime scene photos. Brown said that he jumped out of his car in the middle of the fray and pushed an attacker off the downed body of Jacinth Baker. The assailant got up and Brown clearly heard him declare, "I stabbed him." Brown also testified that he was 90 percent sure the man he pushed off the body was Stafford. Wolfe hints that he thinks one person was "going around" with a knife. Was it Carlos Stafford? While Keven Brown said he was almost sure Baker's assailant was Stafford, he was even more certain that the man wore braids. There was just one person in the Lewis party that night with braids: Joseph Sweeting.

For most of the trial, Sweeting sat expressionless at the defense table, so small and slight that he seemed hidden behind a computer monitor on the defense table. He was the invisible man, the one who seemed to never be mentioned from the witness stand. Yet, it was Sweeting who bought three knives. One was a Gerber Chameleon II intended for gutting animals. It was 7.14 inches long with a serrated blade. Between the blade and the handle was a large O-ring to place the index finger for leverage and control. The other two knives were smaller, keychain versions of the Chameleon II. Lewis testified that in the limo after the stop at the Sports Authority, someone had pitched him the Chameleon II. "Man, are you guys trippin' with those knives?" Lewis asked. Then he said he pitched it back to Sweeting. And it was Sweeting who dropped the three empty knife packages on the ground as they exited the limo to go to the Cobalt.

There always was the possibility that Sweeting was going to admit to having a knife and even stabbing someone, pleading self-defense. But which knife? It was Harvey's position that Oakley had the little knife. That's why Harvey spent considerable time on cross-examination with the medical examiner driving home a single point: Because of the unique configuration of the smaller knife's blade and the size of the wounds, it was quite unlikely it caused the wounds to either Jacinth Baker or Richard Lollar.

It had to be the Chameleon II. It had to be Joseph Sweeting.

In his closing argument, Sadow said, "Whatever Joseph Sweeting's conduct was that night, it was justified." For Sadow, the choice was always simple: His job was to defend his client to the best of his abilities—not to search for the Truth. Sweeting would admit the stabbings and go with self-defense only if he had to. Until that point, Sadow would concede nothing. The prosecution would have to prove everything; that was their mandate and their duty under the law. "Since the age of 11, I've wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer," he says. "I knew if I didn't go with my gut, I'd better get out of the business. And nobody could have walked that line except Joseph. He had enough street smarts to know you don't give in on something unless you have to. John Bergendahl and I had a long conversation with Joseph before the trial. And Bergendahl wanted to go straight self-defense. I wouldn't do it."

As he discusses his strategy, Sadow returns to events that night on East Paces Ferry Road. To the 90 seconds of all hell breaking loose. To Stafford and King and Sweeting. "Kwame King had no knife," Sadow says suddenly. His voice has grown soft. "Carlos kicked Baker. But he didn't stab him." How does he know? "Let's just say I have inside information."

And then Steve Sadow smiles.